Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Review: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Stout

I got hooked on Stout's writing after reading her Pulitzer prize winning Olive Kitteridge. I went on to read Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me, both of which I loved as well... but none of these are a match to The Burgess Boys, which is her finest written novel yet. The novel follows the lives of two brothers, both lawyers, who have left their hometown of Shirley Falls, and of their sister and her son, who are still living in the small town. All of their lives are somewhat broken, somewhat damaged by their father's death and their longing to be a part of, but also get away from, Shirley Falls.

It's not until Susan's troubled, quiet, loner teenage son Zach throws a pig's head through the front door of a mosque in the middle of Ramadan, do these siblings come together in a messy struggle to unite and defend Zach. The plot thickens with the storyline of these offended, scared Somalian refugees who are struggling to blend in and adapt to life in Maine. The brothers, Bob and Jim, are the title's "Burgess Boys" - both lawyers, though Bob defends low-income criminals through Legal Aid, and Jim defends celebrities at a big law firm. The story is told mostly from Bob's perspective, whose perceived role in his father's death has made him passive, weary and able to be controlled by Jim's more dominant, arrogant and bold personality. The story goes on to take some twists and turns that are surprising, and provoke the reader to think about how we've each built our own characters and personalities based on life events.

There are many sections of this novel that focus on family dynamics, and the subtle elements that bond these three siblings together. Those are the parts that are beautifully written and will resonate with every reader. At one point, while she is going over her life and thinking of the changes she'd like to make, Susan remarks that it "was too late. No one wants to believe something is too late, but it is always becoming too late, and then it is." In many ways, Stout shows us that this is may be too late for change, but its not too late for something new... the imperfections in life is what makes it perfect. Zach's hate crime, which is not so much a hate crime as it is the random act of a bored, lost teenager, brings these siblings together and brings to light challenges in their own lives.

Stout's prose is beautiful, it flows easily and keeps us engaged with the suspense of an ongoing trial (Zach is accused of a hate crime). It also moves fluidly between issues of family drama, and larger and current issues like hate crime and assimilation, and I am amazed how she is always able to present the mundane and the exciting in the same paragraph without it being forced. The story, like the characters, is messy... riddled with mistakes and delusions, but also forgiving and vigorous.


  1. This will go next on my reading list-- I loved Olive Kitteridge!

  2. i recently have gotten hooked to audiobooks, i love that i can read a book even when my eyes are tired after a long day of work!! def blog some more about great books and articles you have encountered!!